The Birthday Party, a Comedy of Menace

“Comedy of menace” was a term first used to describe Harold Pinter’s plays by the drama critic Irving Wardle. He borrowed the term from the subtitle of one of David Campton’s plays, The Lunatic View: A Comedy of Menace. A comedy is a humorous play which contains variations on the elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict, repetitiveness, and the effect of opposite expectations and so on in order to amuse and make the audience laugh. A menace is something which threatens to cause harm, evil or injury which seems quite incompatible with the idea of a comedy.
However, as The Birthday Party shows, it is quite possible for a playwright to create both humour and menace in the same play, and even at the same time, in order to produce certain effects and to transmit ideas to the audience. Comedy is present in The Birthday Party from the very first scene; it is a way of gently introducing the audience to the world which Pinter is trying to create. The humour is quite subtle at first, for example the exchange between Petey and Meg about whether Stanley is up or not plays on the words up and down: “Meg: “Is Stanley up yet? Petey: I don’t know.
Is he? Meg: I don’t know. I haven’t seen him down. Petey: Well then, he can’t be up. Meg: Haven’t you seen him down? “. Although the repetitions in this short exchange will not make the audience burst out with laughter they can make them smile and the humour also lulls them into a sense of comfort. A joke with a similar effect is made through another short dialogue between Meg and Petey in which Meg continually asks who is having a baby with Petey insisting that she won’t know her until finally saying it’s “Lady Mary Splatt”, to which Meg replies anticlimactically “I don’t know her”.

This anticlimax as well as the incongruous name of the woman (we do not imagine a “Lady” having the surname “Splatt”) creates humour and again lulls the audience into a sense of peace and normality. As well as this we get a sense of Meg’s stupidity, Petey’s resignation to it and their relationship being unfruitful and routine from their humorous yet uninteresting dialogue. Indeed, half the reason what they say seems funny is because of how pointless it is. Thus, Pinter highlights the uselessness of Meg and Petey’s conversation and in extension the uselessness of everyday small talk.
The worrying thing for the audience about this comedy is that it evidences a kind of futility: Meg does notseem to have much of a life beyond these pointless conversations. Thus, while the humour of the dialogue lightens the tone of the scene it also poses a question on the passivity and futility of the lives of the characters and the lives of many people in general. Humour also serves to draw attention to the strangeness of Meg and Stanley’s relationship. Indeed, Meg treats him like a child despite his being a man of thirty. We are made aware of the fact that Stanley is not a child when he comes on stage for the first time.
Before this Meg’s calling him “that boy” and trying to get him out of bed by calling “Stan! Stanny! Stan! I’m coming up to fetch you if you don’t come down! I’m coming up! I’m going to count to three! One! Two! Three! ” makes the audience think he must be a child. Thus when we see him for the first time the incompatibility between the reality and what we have been lead to believe creates humour. The inappropriateness of Meg’s treatment of Stanley and his being a fully grown man also creates humour at other moments of the play, for example when she asks him if he “pa[id] a visit this morning” (went to the toilet).
While Meg and Stanley’s conversation has some comedic value it could also make the audience feel slightly uneasy, perhaps they will ask themselves why this woman of sixty treats a man of thirty like a boy and why he plays along with her at times. Their exchanges, for example, the dialogue revolving around Stanley calling Meg a “succulent old washing bag” and Meg’s reaction to it, seeming to believe that it’s a rude word is quite funny for the audience as again it highlights her silliness but makes their relationship even stranger as she speaks “coyly”: she does not only play a maternal role but is also somewhat flirtatious.
Thus humour, while seeming quite light can have a deeper meaning and cover up something a lot more serious about a character and problems they may have. Likewise, Stanley’s attempts at humour when talking to Lulu are a kind of proof of his social inadequacy. When she says that it’s stuffy he replies “Stuffy? I disinfected the place this morning. ” And when she talks about his getting under Meg’s feet he says he “always stand[s] on the table when she sweeps the floor”. These two lines are both untrue and when saying them Stanley’s aim seems to be to make a joke.
However, they both fall flat with Lulu and we could also imagine with the audience. Consequently, comedy, or rather attempts at it, evidence Stanley’s lack of social skills. Therefore humour can be a way to introduce the audience to characters and their relationships with each other, and also make the audience think about these characters and perhaps their problems while keeping them interested in the play itself. The parody of small talk also allows Pinter to pose questions to the audience about the futility of many of our lives.
Comedy does not just appear alone in this play, humour often appears during a somewhat frightening scene in which characters menace another. Some of these scenes are power struggles between characters or scenes where one character asserts themselves over another. For example, in the scene where Stanley tells Meg about the wheelbarrow he is obviously trying to menace her with his repeated questions (“Do you know what? “, “Have you heard the latest? “, “And do you know what they’ve got in that van? ” etc), the anonymous “they”, the imminence of “today” and his actions as he “advance[s] upon her”.
Despite the menacing aspect of this scene the fact that what he is threatening her with is a wheelbarrow adds a slightly bizarre and humorous tone. Indeed, the audience could laugh at Meg, thinking only she could be afraid of a wheelbarrow. However, her reaction to the threats is quite strong as she becomes “breathless” and cries out “hoarsely”. She seems to be afraid of it because it’s new and different, an example of human fear of the unknown, and also perhaps of being “taken away” as Stanley repeats twice “They’re looking for someone”.
Either way the humorous aspect of someone being afraid of a wheelbarrow heightens the menacing atmosphere for the audience as we don’t understand her fear; if she was afraid of something more normal we would not feel so ill at ease. Thus in this scene, Pinter makes use of a comedic aspect with a menacing atmosphere in order to make the audience aware of our own fears of what we do not understand. Comedy and menace also appear together in both the first music hall scene and just before it.
In the “sitting down scene”, a certain amount of humour can be derived from the fact that three grown men are playing a childish game about who will sit down first, but what this game represents is a power struggle. As with the wheelbarrow, this silly game is symbolic of something much more serious; here, the person who sits will lose power. This menacing part of the scene is shown by the insistence of Goldberg and McCann that Stanley sit down and McCann’s yelling “That’s a dirty trick! I’ll kick the shite out of him”.
Interestingly, Stanley seems to try to lighten the atmosphere with the joke (“Now you’ve both had a rest you can get out! ) which causes McCann to say this, but he only succeeds in heightening the tense and menacing atmosphere of the scene. Again, humour does not take away from the threat but adds to it, making it worse. The fact that Stanley’s joke doesn’t lighten the scene as he hoped can also show the inadequacies of language.
Indeed, one would not expect a joke to create more threats and menace. Thus, through the pairing of humour with menace Pinter shows the audience how words do not always achieve the desired effects and therefore is evidence of our own shortfalls as we do not always accomplish what we would like to through our speech.
However, Goldberg does achieve what he wants to with his use of comedy and threats. This is because he wants to create a more menacing scene in order to completely destroy Stanley. His humour comes from the common expressions that he sometimes modifies, such as “You’re beginning to get on my breasts”, and the different registers of these expressions, for example he says “Why are you driving that old lady off her conk? ” which seems very colloquial compared to his normal speech.
He also makes an ironic joke when he says that McCann is “the life and soul of any party”, which is evidently false as the audience can tell that he isn’t from how little he speaks. Goldberg’s jokes contrast with the serious and controlling man who makes Stanley sit down simply by saying quietly “Webber. SIT DOWN”. Indeed, we feel more menaced by Goldberg than by McCann because as McCann has already yelled at Stanley we feel as though we know what he is capable of but we don’t really know how much Goldberg can do with his power of speech.
The power which comes from the paradoxical pairing of humour with menace can be seen in the first music hall scene and in the scene with Lulu. In the music hall scene, the fast pace of the short, nonsensical questions creates a sense of urgency and fear as we do not know what the point of all these questions is. While some of the questions and accusations seem serious, such as “Why did you leave the organisation? “, others create humour such as, “When did you last have a bath” or “McCann: You throttled her. Goldberg: With arsenic”.
At the end of the scene the question they are asking him is the well known joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road? “. It is this question, one of the most unanswerable of all the ones they ask him that finally makes him break down; he can no longer answer. The fact that a joke question is one of the causes of Stanley’s destruction shows the strength of humour. Indeed, Freud theorised that “[in] addition to the one who makes the joke, there must be a second [person] who is taken as the object of the hostile aggressiveness, and a third in whom the joke’s aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled”.
In this scene, Goldberg and McCann make the jokes to amuse the audience while Stanley is the victim. However, the audience does not really laugh at these jokes, in fact they serve more to make us uneasy, but we still recognise the humour in them and perhaps even appreciate it. The same three person structure is found in the scene where McCann menaces Lulu. In that scene, Lulu is the victim while McCann tells her “savagely” to confess while Goldberg creates humour by picking up everything she says and turning it against her. For example she says “You taught me things a girl shouldn’t know before she’s been married at least three times! , to which Goldberg replies “Now you’re a jump ahead! What are you complaining about? “.
The audience will appreciate Goldberg’s humour while also finding what Lulu herself says funny despite the fact that she is evidently upset and angry, as it says in the stage directions. This humour followed so quickly by McCann’s threats will again make the audience uneasy. This uneasiness of the audience is partly caused by our finding Goldberg, and perhaps even McCann, funny when we feel perhaps that we shouldn’t. By being amused by them we ally ourselves with them, the two characters who we know to be manipulative and controlling.
Indeed, through their (Goldberg’s especially) humour we are manipulated by them to laugh at the other characters. Thus, Pinter shows by placing comedic elements with menacing ones that humour can be powerful and creates relationships between us: relationships which have a strong element of control to them, as our feelings and reactions are manipulated by Goldberg, just like the other relationships which we see in the play. Therefore, we can say that Pinter’s “comedy of menace” is a way to show us how he believes that all relationships revolve around one person asserting their power over another.
The atmosphere of menace which is present in this play does not only appear in conjunction with humour. Instead it often relies on the unknown or things not being fully explained. For example, when Goldberg and McCann first arrive, they come through the back door without knocking, which is in itself quite odd, then Goldberg says he wasn’t looking for a number when McCann asks him how he knows it’s the right house. This is quite an eerie thing to say as the audience can ask themselves what he was looking for as normally you recognise a house by the number.
Indeed, it is this abnormality and not knowing how Goldberg knew which house he wanted which creates a sense of a threat or that something bad will happen. This can show the audience how we feel a need for things to be “normal”, we fear things that we don’t understand or that are new. Likewise, McCann’s refusal to join Stanley in conversation at the beginning of the second act, giving short answers and asking little in return is really a refusal to make normal conversation. These short responses seem quite menacing because they contrast against Stanley’s seemingly open discussion.
The audience could believe that Stanley’s trying to tempt McCann into conversing with him properly is not only to get information about why he is there but to also make McCann seem more normal and thus less menacing. Like the opening scene with its pointless dialogue this scene shows the human need for speech in order to keep the fear of a threat, in this case represented by McCann, at bay. Language is not the only menacing thing, there are also several small actions or events which add to the menacing atmosphere of the play: the synchronised whistling, McCann’s tearing the newspaper into strips and the lights during the birthday party.
None of these things should seem that menacing by themselves but the context in which they are placed makes them seem so. Two “strangers” whistling the same tune together while talking, a grown man sitting at a table tearing paper, a light being shone on a man at his own birthday party as though he is a police suspect and finally a blackout which makes Stanley become violent all seem abnormal and strange for the audience: we do not understand why they happen (except for the blackout, and then we only find out later).
It is this not understanding and abnormality of the events which adds to the menacing atmosphere of the play. Therefore we can say that the threatening ambiance of the play is created through language, in particular humour and the unknown, but also through certain eerie and strange events or deeds. The reason Pinter uses these things to make the audience afraid is to show us our fear of what we do not know and the abnormal. However, Pinter makes sure that some of the menacing atmosphere is elevated at times, which actually emphasises how strong this atmosphere is.
The threatening ambiance is lessened by the use of humour. This humour can be found in the first dialogue between Goldberg and McCann, for example, when McCann says that Goldberg, who is obviously a Jew, is a “true Christian”. There is also humour with the dialogue between Goldberg and Meg, after the first music hall scene, when he is admiring her dress and slaps her bottom, as well as before when he calls her a tulip and she asks “What colour? “.
Pinter uses comedy at these moments in the play in order to reassure the audience and to keep some suspense: if the whole length of the play was filled with a menacing atmosphere we would know that Stanley will lose the power struggle from the beginning. The humour also brings a certain level of normality back to the proceedings of the play so that the menacing atmosphere can increase slowly, again creating more suspense. Thus, I agree completely with the description of The Birthday Party as a “comedy of menace”. While comedy and menace both appear separately in the play it is together that they affect the audience most.
The association of two seemingly opposing themes in one play allows the audience to realise some of Pinter’s preoccupations concerning the inadequacy of language but also its power, how we have some irrational fears concerning the unknown and the abnormal, how relationships work through manipulation and power struggles and the passivity of so many people throughout their lives. As well as this, the fact that we can associate these two terms, finding something menacing yet humorous at the same time, could also be a way for Pinter to show the paradoxical nature of human beings.

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